If Ever You Argue with an Evangelical

As a philosophy teacher and lifelong arguer/debater/manipulator I have observed this: our stance on issues is the conclusion we have drawn based on what we have already decided about how the world works. Let me say it another, more crude, way: the issues we debate are most often the the symptoms. Our presuppositions, assumptions, insecurities, and past experiences are often the disease.

What this means is that arguments would be a lot more productive if we talked more about the way we see the world (our presuppositions & past experiences) and less about our stance on hot-button issues. But this takes a lot more work. Take conversations about religion, for example. It’s apparent that we have on our hands a major communications breakdown. Atheists and Evangelicals, Progressives and Evangelicals, Evangelicals and Evangelicals, all ships passing in the night—usually trying to blow each other to metaphorical shit with verbal cannons.

If you don’t understand why people stand for things, you will always have a hard time convincing them to stand for something else.

And so here is a peek into one of the major “why’s” of conservative Evangelicals (in my experience): I need my community’s interpretation of the Bible to be inerrant.

You will get far in dialogue with the average evangelical Christian if you take time to understand this statement. It means that, for them, arguments are not about human rights, they are not about sex (gay or otherwise), they are not about science. They are all about their need to uphold certain beliefs about what the Bible is, what it says, and how it has authority in their lives.

The average conservative Evangelical is not against gay marriage or evolution as much as they are against a non-inerrant and non-“plain” reading (read: my community’s interpretation that I have been taught my whole life is the only interpretation) of Scripture.

And this is understandable. Conservative evangelicalism has largely dismissed tradition, reason, and the experience of the Spirit (to conveniently use Wesley’s quadrilateral) as reliable foundations for understanding the truth about God and have put all of their eggs into Scripture. In a very profound emotional, intellectual, and spiritual sense they need the Bible to be inerrant.

If you do not come to terms with this and take it very seriously in your dialogues with most conservative Evangelicals, you will simply alienate them, giving them more and more reasons to dig their trenches even more deeply. The way to the heart of a conservative evangelical is not to ask them to give up their views of the Bible but it’s through a careful and patient deconstruction of their views of the Bible.

If you trace back any issue in which the conservative Evangelical church has changed their minds in the past 30 years, you will see cultural pressure followed by scholarship that allows for conservative Evangelicals to conform to that pressure while also still holding to an inerrant Bible. The two biggies, of course, being divorce and women in leadership. Without a new way to see the Bible, there will be incredible resistance to change, it will simply be seen as “compromise with the world.”

So, if ever you argue with a conservative Evangelical, it’s probably wise to start with the Bible, end with the Bible, and let everything in between be about the Bible.


10 responses to “If Ever You Argue with an Evangelical

  1. I agree that more often than not, the issue is not the issue – that’s it’s background beliefs and presuppositions that are already clashing before we even talk about the ‘symptom’. But I feel that you’re being perhaps a little patronising. Yes, the background assumption for evangelicals is to do with how they view biblical authority, but this is not necessarily because they ‘need’ to be affirmed in that. Some of us have come to the conclusion that through his Word God has chosen to reveal himself to us sufficiently, and this is not some emotional need. Perhaps, though, I’ve misunderstood what you meant by ‘need’?

    • Thanks for pointing this out Andrew. I did use the word “need” because it is ambiguous. But I did point out that it’s not just emotionally that we often “need” things. We also need things to help make a system work, to help us understand other data, etc.

      Aside from that, I think though, that you are not the “average” Evangelical Christian that I am referring to, nor am I. It’s just been my experience that folks get super defensive with issues that threaten their view of the Bible because they are emotionally tied to it. I am not and it seem neither are you. But I think we might be exceptions in the evangelical world, especially in the world of the average congregation member.

      What do you think? I could totally be wrong.

      • Well, I’m not an American Evangelical, which perhaps has it’s lines drawn much more closely in the sand? (though I have great admiration for a number of leading American evangelicals, even some who would draw said lines more closely than I) Perhaps the Australian-English evangelicals are generally more generous? I mean, would Tom Wright be considered a conservative evangelical in the States? I’m not sure.
        In any case, I do see your point about defensiveness when certain views are threatened.

      • I am not sure of the differences but I know they exist. Tom Wright has recently been allowed into conservative evangelical circles but the “average evangelical” (not evangelical leader) would have no clue who Tom Wright is (much less N.T. Wright) and would probably be offended by some of his views, of, say, Genesis.

  2. Jared, Why wouldn’t ‘the need to hold to a literal view of the Bible’ also be merely a symptom? It certainly is the motiviator that drives much of the conservative Evangelical opinion, but I wonder what core ‘need’ drives that? It seems that we could deconstruct this one even further…

    • I completely agree. From what I have learned from my psychology friends, there are only a handful of things that really drive us. Fear, shame, guilt, acceptance, and a few others. I think most of our conflicts can be brought back to one of these things. How else do you think we could deconstruct it?

      • Well, I’ve sat on the head-shrinker’s couch enough to agree that there are only a handful of basic emotions. And my knee-jerk reaction would be that fear is the motivator to hold onto that particular brand of Biblical interpretation…but that seems insulting. So, I’m not sure. I would say that there seems to be a group of people in the world that want certainty and another group that is either fine without it – or blissfully ignorant. And what about those of us who have visited both sides?

  3. As a person who only recently starting identifying as progressive, I can say from personal experience that you are correct. One of my biggest fears is the “slippery slope.” If you make a concession for one thing how long until you slide into ridiculousness and make everything nebulous? How long until we start saying sin doesn’t matter and throw truth completely out the window? How long until we start cherry-picking because some verses make us uncomfortable? I think it’s a fear (a huge fear of being wrong, among other fears) and a *need* for something concrete to cling to. It’s also an identity issue.

    I started seeing the Bible differently the moment I read Genesis and used my imagination. My eyes were opened to God’s beauty and I finally started to move out of fear and into love by God’s grace. I thought to myself, “the Bible says that we have the Holy Spirit to teach us, and the Bible didn’t always exist like this and it wasn’t always available to everyone, but people still lead Christ-honoring lives. How do I do that today? If God spoke to people then (and it was a regular occurrence), why wouldn’t he still be speaking to people now?” Speaking as someone who comes from the background that you’re talking about, all I can say to anyone is please be gentle. It’s often been driven into our heads that we’ll be damned if we view the Bible any other way than the way we were taught. I think one of the most important things that a conservative evangelical needs to hear from a Christian with a different perspective, to get things going, is that the person still sees that God has put his authority into the Bible (I believe the term “authority of the Bible” to be shorthand for “God’s authority”).

    • Thanks so much for this Jess, you seem to have taken the spirit in which this post was written. I especially love “Speaking as someone who comes from the background that you’re talking about, all I can say to anyone is please be gentle. It’s often been driven into our heads that we’ll be damned if we view the Bible any other way than the way we were taught.” That is exactly right and it must always be handled with patience, love, and care — just as any difference in thought should be handled.

  4. You are so, so incredibly right, Jared. Our worldview, and the language we use to express it, is truly the foundation for everything we stand for. Thank you for making this complicated truth so clear.

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